When you’re ready to enjoy whales, water, and walking, the small haven of San Juan Island is ready to welcome you. Starting off with arriving via ferry, and finding the perfect spot for stocking up for a picnic, San Juan Island is the perfect getaway for outdoor-loving families. Kids might even spot a whale, and the Lime Kiln State Park lighthouse and coastline is the perfect backdrop for your next family photo.
San Juan Island
There is a reason Washington is known as the evergreen state. Its wet winters and mild summers give birth to an abundance of greenery. From evergreen trees to flowering shrubs, this state is one that invites to you get outdoors and explore. Dotted just off the northern coastline of Washington State is a cluster of islands known as the San Juan Islands.
The most populous of these islands is San Juan Island, a delightful dot in this evergreen state. For families, reaching San Juan Island is half of the fun, since being an island means you have to take a boat to reach it. If you want to really explore the island as a family, you should plan to take your car on a Washington State ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, the main town center of San Juan Island.
Anacortes is about an hour and a half drive north of Seattle, and you’ll want to arrive early to get in line for the ferry. A family of four driving a standard vehicle will pay about $64 for a roundtrip ride, with no collection being taken on the Friday Harbor to Anacortes route. My girls love taking the ferry, and taking a car aboard a boat is especially exciting. After sailing for roughly and hour, if it stops at the other three San Juan Islands the sailing time is longer, you’ll dock in the quaint town of Friday Harbor.
Friday Harbor is perfect for grabbing a quick bite of food, I highly recommend stopping into The Market Chef and ordering from their menu of fresh sandwiches and salads. The restaurant is owned by a local couple and is the perfect place to pick up fixings for a family picnic in the outdoors.
Lime Kiln State Park
Now you’re ready to begin your exploration of the outdoor beauty of San Juan Island. For your first outdoor adventure, I’d recommend you head out to Lime Kiln State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park. Here’s one of the few spots where families might have a chance at glimpsing whales and other ocean wildlife from land. You can also venture out through the trails to find the old lime kilns that give the park its name, as well as a view of Vancouver Island. Don’t forget to snap a photo at the 1919 lighthouse which is still operating.
For your next outdoor experience, I recommend heading to Pelindaba Lavender Farms where you can walk and explore amongst their 25-acre farm. This is a great outdoor educational opportunity for kids as well since they can see how the lavender is processed to create lavender oil products. You can even cut your own lavender bunch if it’s in season and you might catch the lavender festival which occurs around the third weekend in July, as well has the harvest which happens over five to six weeks in September.
If you’re ready to get out of the sun for a bit, while still learning about the outdoors, a stop in the Whale Museum is a must for families. This is the first museum that has a focus on whale conservation instead of whaling. Kids will see whale skeletons and learn all about the area’s resident orcas as well as migrating whales. This is also the perfect lead up to my next outdoor adventure, whale watching.
You’ll find quite a few options for whale watching, but the local companies care deeply about the resident orcas and will adhere to the federal and state laws that protect the endangered southern resident whales. A good tour operator will maintain a 200-yard distance, which is surprisingly close when you’re watching whales that are larger than your boat.
There are three resident orca pods which can often be seen from late April through October. But there are transient whales that can be seen year-round, and you might catch a glimpse of other species such as gray, minke, or humpback whales. During my September trip, we came upon two humpback whales while riding aboard the Puget Sound Express; the kids who were on the boat had huge smiles and you could see the absolute joy they had at the moment.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to spot whales on the trip, being out on the water and enjoying the gorgeous rocky shorelines and sea views is a great way to appreciate the unique outdoor beauty of San Juan Island. Another way to get outdoors and enjoy the Salish Sea is to plan for a kayak tour.
Best suited for families with older kids (12+), taking a paddle around the west side of San Juan Island is to date one of my most memorable outdoor experiences. There is nothing quite like sitting at sea level as you propel along and catch glimpses of eagles, sea lions, and even a slim chance of whales. This is also a great bonding opportunity for families since you’re placed in two person kayaks and must to work together to beat the current and move your vessel along.
When you’re ready to enjoy the pristine beauty of the northwest coast, a trip to San Juan Island is the perfect spot for your adventure. The island has so much beauty to offer, and it’s residents have done an admirable job of keeping the natural beauty untouched. Your family will find moments to bond and relax, as well as find a new appreciation for the Pacific Northwest.